In today's world, it's not hard to build a website. There are dozens of free website building platforms available to the average person, and they're relatively easy to work with--even if you're a total amateur. However, there are some serious downsides to this approach; your site will usually rely on a template, which makes it look generic, and you'll have less control over the form and function of your eventual site.
Accordingly, it's often better for serious businesses to work with a professional web designer. Unfortunately, the market is saturated with people and organizations who claim to be the best--and there's no clear rubric for what makes one better than another.
So what should you be looking for when evaluating designers?
What to Check Before Hiring a Professional
These are the most important things to look for:
1. Area of expertise.
First, you'll want to look at whether your designer of choice has a specific area of expertise; while many agencies and freelancers opt for a "general" model, attempting to design websites for as many people as possible, others have a specific, narrow realm of expertise. For example, the agency WebDiner focuses exclusively on building websites for restaurants. Others may focus exclusively on one style of website, or may have internal templates they use to produce sites more efficiently. Most websites and portfolios will tell you, upfront, what this expertise is, so it shouldn't take much research to figure out where they stand.
In addition to expertise, you'll need to look to see what services your web designer is able to provide. For example, agencies like Pathwwway usually offer multiple services at once, including design, development, and hosting, with flexible packages to accommodate your needs. The web design and development process actually constitutes a number of distinct phases, and your prospective designers may only work in one of those phases. Therefore, it pays to be proactive; you'll either want to hire someone capable of handling everything, or fill in the gaps with other professionals who know what they're doing.
3. Past work.
There's no better gauge for the quality of a designer than the websites they've designed in the past. Most professionals will showcase some of their best work on a portfolio page of their website, but if it's not there, make sure to specifically ask for some past examples and references. You should also look to see if your designer has ever won any awards or accolades for their work - Awwwards is perhaps the best-known organization here, but even small-time local awards are strong indications of performance.
If you're hiring a freelancer, you'll be able to see the talent firsthand, but if you're working with an agency, you'll want to poke around to find out who's actually going to be working on your site. Sites like 99 Designs, for example, offer a kind of crowdsourced approach to web design; they'll invite several people to work on your web design, and you'll select the best design out of those submissions. Depending on your preferences, it may be better to work with an agency that staffs a handful of creative people you know you'll appreciate.
Remember, you're going to be working with this person on a pivotal piece of your online marketing strategy--you'll want to make sure you have a strong personal rapport with them. Before hiring anyone, you should have the chance to meet with them in person--or at least have a dialogue over the phone. Is this person responsive? Are they easy to get along with and communicate with? These factors will influence how effectively they'll be able to build your website.
Agency or Freelancer?
At some point, you'll also need to make the decision to pursue either an agency or a freelancer for your web designing needs. There are advantages to each approach, of course; freelancers tend to be more flexible and more affordable, while agencies tend to be more reliable, and may be able to offer a more robust suite of services. There's no clear right answer here, but chances are, one of these options will be better suited for your specific business.
There are literally thousands of designers and developers out there, so try not to let yourself become overwhelmed. Start by asking around for recommendations and searching for people in your area, and use the above criteria to filter down your list.